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Andy Prest: Cheers to the Cheshire Cheese, and all those restaurants that create lifelong memories

Nothing makes a lasting impression quite like a favourite family diner from your childhood.
Cheshire Cheese web
A patron enjoys one last Crown Float before the closure of North Vancouver’s Cheshire Cheese Restaurant.

Few businesses have the ability to implant lasting memories like a favourite local restaurant.

Chances are there’s one that is etched in your mind from your childhood, a place that was special to your family. You can probably picture it now as you read this, right?

Mine was a bustling grill in my small town, run by a Greek family. They must have been good at what they did – they somehow convinced a picky white bread Prairie boy like me, a kid afraid of any spice stronger than oregano, to learn to love dishes such as souvlaki, calamari and escargot. Baked snails and deep-fried squid served in small-town Alberta? They must have been miracle workers.

But it wasn’t just the food that made it special. It was the people, the atmosphere, the feeling of being welcomed. At the end of many of our meals, the owner would come over and say hi with his incredible Greek accent, giving my mom and dad each a shot of ouzo as a thanks for their patronage. I still recall the black licorice smell that came wafting out of those little glasses.

My wife, who grew up in a different Prairie town, remembers regular visits to her favourite restaurant, run by an eccentric family friend. If you ordered his Caesar salad, he had an elaborate, choreographed routine he would do as he prepared it beside your table. And if you ordered a late-night Spanish coffee, he would bring it out and set it on fire, with the song Closing Time by Leonard Cohen blaring.

“The whole damn place goes crazy twice, and it’s once for the devil and once for Christ.”

Legendary stuff.

I never saw these performances, but I feel like I was there because I’ve heard her family talk about them so many times.

I realized, just this weekend, what that memorable restaurant is for my own two children. It’s a restaurant here in North Vancouver called the Cheshire Cheese, and it is closing for good in less than a week.

It didn’t really occur to me that this was THAT place for them until I told them that it was closing and they insisted we make one last trip there. But then I understood – we’ve been going there since they were babies. Not every week or month, but several times over the years, and almost always with one set of grandparents or another.

We loved it as a place for children because it wasn’t rammed full of television screens for the kids to stare at. Instead it had something infinitely better – a one-of-a-kind view into Vancouver Harbour, complete with non-stop action from Seabuses, mega-yachts, float planes, cargo ships, cranes, helicopters, cruise ships, tugboats, tourists, and more and more. It was as if a page of a Richard Scarry book came to life as we enjoyed our delicious fish tacos and lamb curries.

And the food and drink were good, no doubt. The kids were crazy for their fish and chips, and I don’t know how they could make a beef dip that was so simple yet so good. We’d indulge in these impressive beverages called Crown Floats that were a two-toned wonder of Guinness Irish Stout and Strongbow Apple Cider – party on the top, and party on the bottom. 

But it was more than the food that we’ll remember. There’s a funny poster on the wall in the bathroom that my boys would always notice. There were servers who always made them feel welcome, the crayons and drawing pages always arriving right after we sat down. Their patio was the first place our family felt comfortable enough for a dinner out during the pandemic. No one lit our drinks on fire, but we always felt the warmth.

We went back there last weekend for a final toast. As we drank a last Crown Float, we mused about the passing of Queen Elizabeth. My verdict: while there are many, many problems with the monarchy and all it stands for, she herself seemed like a pretty tough, cool and all-around decent person given the extraordinary circumstances of her life. In terms of the best Queens in my life, she slots in above “Latifah” and “-sized bed,” and just below “Dairy” and the band that sang Under Pressure, which is pretty high praise from me.

My wife often jokes that when she was a kid, her mom would tell her and her sisters to behave at the dinner table “as if they were dining with the Queen.”

The Queen never showed up at any of those meals, of course. But there are so many other meals that are memorable for other reasons. The trick is to find a place where you feel like royalty. 

Andy Prest is the sports and features editor of the North Shore News. His lifestyle/humour column runs biweekly. [email protected]

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